How mental health professionals can work hand in hand with School Counselors

By: Teralyn Hobbs, MSSW   As a mental health professional, you may interact with a school counselor in your travels, either for your kid, or a family with which you’re working. If you have ever left those interactions with questions, you are not alone.

The Way I See It

School counselors are dedicated educators who are responsible for the emotional well-being of more children than the average private practice clinician could see IN 10 YEARS. They are super busy and are getting busier due to federal efforts to improve school climate and identification of students with mental health concerns. For those of us who work in the school or are school-adjacent, this is often our introduction to Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) and the implementation of social-emotional learning curricula.

While as mental health professionals we’re ecstatic that schools are recognizing the importance of mental health and are actively trying to address it, be aware that educational psychology approaches mental health from an entirely different theoretical perspective.

The most important distinction is that the primary focus of educational psychology is academics. Need is often determined by how much academics are being impaired. Consequently, interventions are implemented to target academic difficulties.

Ethically, it is required that we practice within our professional scope. Thus, it is important to remember that the school counselor is at their core an educator. 

Not Better or Worse, Just Different

In my experience, the rub between mental health provider and school counselor usually arises from the differences in theoretical perspectives.

For example, the mental health professional may often approach the child with a more comprehensive perspective that extends beyond the narrow band of academics. This difference may cause conflict in the determination of the “problem” and differences in opinion in how to address such concerns. Additionally, there are differences in how interventions are implemented.

While mental health professionals may utilize various treatment modalities to address concerns, school counselors primarily rely on instructional strategies.

Many children can take information obtained through social or emotional instruction, generalize it, and integrate it into their behavior. However, for some children, more intervention may be required. 

What Amazed Me

As part of summer professional development, I attended training where we were tasked with creating a lesson plan where we would teach students about a specific executive functioning deficit. Having no instructional background, I was amazed at the level of consideration lesson plans and instruction require.

Understanding the complexities of instruction has caused me to reevaluate how I provide training as well as how I provide psycho-education.

However, I still struggled with the fundamental premise of the assignment. While I believe providing instruction to children with executive functioning deficits about these deficits is beneficial, I’m unsure of the long-term impact instruction alone could provide. Additionally, I was concerned that framing of executive functioning deficits within the school context alone might not have the desired impact. A more global approach is beneficial.

I believe both perspectives are important and vital to the child's development. One is not "right," and the other "wrong." Schools provide an important foundation of societal functioning; however, societal functioning does not begin and end on a school campus.

Understanding the differences in perspective can help both the school counselor and mental health professional work together to address the needs of the child collaboratively. Ultimately, what is always best for the child is for all parties to work together to address their long and short term needs.

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What is your role, your experience and your perspective on this subject?
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